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What Is Melatonin And Does It Help You Sleep Better?

What is melatonin? Many Americans take this popular sleep supplement at night, but is it safe? Learn about the side effects and natural alternatives here.

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What is melatonin? If you’ve ever had trouble sleeping, you may have been told to look into this sleep supplement.

In fact, according to the Sleep Foundation, approximately 50 to 70 million Americans have an ongoing sleep disorder.

Melatonin is also known as the sleep hormone. It tells your body when it’s time to wake up and go to sleep.

This can help regulate your sleep cycle. However, there are some things you should know if you plan to take it in supplement form.

Read on to learn the answers to questions such as “What is melatonin?” and “Is melatonin safe?” The answers might surprise you.

What Is Melatonin?

An image of a man taking melatonin at night to help him sleep
Many people take melatonin at night to help them sleep.

Melatonin is a hormone found in many animals and plants. In humans, melatonin is synthesized in the brain’s pineal gland.

During conditions of low light, such as night-time, melatonin levels increase and signal our body to begin feeling sleepy.

In some cases, like when experiencing jet lag or menopause, your body’s internal clock goes out of sync.

When this happens, melatonin production may be interrupted, making it hard for you to fall asleep.

In these instances, a medical practitioner may prescribe exogenous or synthetic melatonin for short-term use. 

Side Effects Of Melatonin

Melatonin crosses the blood-brain barrier and interacts directly and relatively quickly with your body. Labeling inconsistencies make overdosing a possibility with melatonin.

Clinical experts recommend that adults start with 1 mg and then increase it by 1 mg (not exceeding 10 mg) every week until they’ve reduced the time it takes to fall asleep.

Let’s look into the side effects of melatonin supplements. 

Feeling sleepy or groggy during the day

Exogenous melatonin can make you tired during the day. Some users find that while melatonin helps them fall asleep, they may not necessarily wake up energized.

Feeling groggy is an indication that you may have overdosed.

Headaches and dizziness 

Having a headache or dizzy spells is another side effect of melatonin supplementation. These side effects can get in the way of everyday living.

Dizziness can be an added risk, especially if your occupation involves driving or using machinery.

Vivid dreams or nightmares 

Another possible side effect of melatonin usage is dreams that make you even more tired. While you may get seven or more hours of sleep with melatonin, it may not necessarily be quality sleep.

Agitation and bedwetting in children 

Melatonin supplementation in children can make them more restless. Those who fall asleep too deeply may end up wetting their beds.

Take caution before giving melatonin to your child. Doctors generally recommend behavioral and other interventions first. 

Hypermelatoninemia 

Taking too much can result in a condition called hypermelatoninemia. This is when your peak night-time melatonin levels are higher than normal.

Hypermelatoninemia has been associated with serious conditions like anorexia nervosa, hypogonadism, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). 

Who Should Not Take It?

Melatonin supplements aren’t recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women as there aren’t enough studies to confirm their safety. One study also indicated that it could compromise sperm quality in men by decreasing sperm count and motility.

It is contraindicated for individuals with certain health conditions. People with kidney or liver problems may be unable to metabolize it properly.

Those who suffer from depression, as well as older people with dementia, should avoid taking it. Meanwhile, research is still unclear on the effects of melatonin on people with autoimmune conditions.

Best Natural Alternatives To Melatonin

An image of foods that contain melatonin
Many foods naturally contain melatonin and can be consumed at night to help you sleep.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recognizes the presence of melatonin in nature. Research revealed that melatonin is readily available in many TCM herbs at varying concentrations. 

According to TCM physician Lee Shin Wei, TCM views sleep disturbances from the perspective of Excess or Deficiency: 

Excess syndromes and symptoms 

  • Pathogenic Fire derived from Liver Stagnation: symptoms include being impatient, depressed, and anxious. 
  • Phlegm-Heat disturbance: Symptoms include dizziness, heart palpitations, and heavy limbs. 

Deficiency syndromes and symptoms 

  • Fire derived from Yin (cold) Deficiency: Staying up late, feeling restless before bed, suffering from insomnia, feverish limbs and heart, and red tongue.  
  • Heart and Spleen Deficiency: Experiencing a lot of dreams, light sleep, heart palpitations, and forgetfulness. 
  • Timidness from Heart Deficiency: Being a light sleeper, getting easily scared. 

Herbs and acupuncture 

Many TCM herbs and formulations can help with sleep issues. 

  • Lotus seeds (lian zi), for example, can up-regulate GABA receptors in our body. GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in our nervous system. 
  • Many non-caffeinated herbal teas are also a good choice. Rooibos tea is a calming beverage that you can drink before bedtime. Research has shown that it is effective in lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Rooibos also contains magnesium, an important mineral that helps reduce insomnia in older adults.  
  • In addition to herbal medicine, acupuncture is another TCM modality that has effectively improved insomnia. A 2013 study demonstrated that acupuncture effectively improved sleep quality and decreased daytime dysfunction among 180 patients with primary insomnia. 

Some acupoints that can be massaged to encourage sleep and relaxation are shen men (HT7), nei guan (PC6), bai hui (DUGV20), and an main (EX-HN16).

Lifestyle changes

Physician Lee also reminds us of lifestyle habits that can help promote good sleep.

“Get enough exercise during the day so that you expend any extra energy. Avoid stressing yourself out so that you won’t delay your sleeping time and affect your sleep quality. Also, you will feel restless if your stomach is feeling unwell. Resolve any gastrointestinal problems as soon as possible so that they will not affect your sleep.”

TCM Physician Lee Shin Wei

Like all synthetic compounds and drugs, taking exogenous melatonin may have side effects. While it may work well for some people, the side effects might not be worth it for you. Consider other natural alternatives that help promote better sleep that leaves you rested and relaxed.

References

  1. Cleveland Clinic. 2022. Melatonin. [online] Available at: <https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/23411-melatonin>
  2. EndocrinologyAdvisor.com. 2019. Melatonin: Range of Effects and Therapeutic Applications. [online] Available at: <https://www.endocrinologyadvisor.com/home/topics/general-endocrinology/melatonin-range-of-effects-and-therapeutic-applications/2/
  3. SleepFoundation.org. 2022. Melatonin Side Effects. [online] Available at: <https://www.sleepfoundation.org/melatonin/melatonin-side-effects
  4. SleepFoundation.org 2022. Melatonin Dosage: How Much Melatonin Should You Take. [online] Available at: <https://www.sleepfoundation.org/melatonin/melatonin-dosage-how-much-should-you-take
  5. Multi-Disciplinary Publishing Institute (MDPI) – Cells. 2019. Melatonin in Medicinal and Food Plants: Occurrence, Bioavailability, and Health Potential for Humans. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6678868/
  6. Sleep Science. 2017. Sleep, Melatonin, and the Menopausal Transition: What Are the Links? [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5611767/
  7. SleepFoundation.org. 2022. Natural Sleep Aids. [online] Available at: <https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-aids/natural-sleep-aids
  8. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2021. Nelumbo nucifera promotes non-rapid eye movement sleep by regulating GABAergic receptors in rat model. [online] Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378874120333973>
  9. Cancer Association of South Africa. 2015. Fact Sheet on Rooibos Tea. [online] Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273090980_Fact_Sheet_on_Rooibos_Tea
  10. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology. 2020. Assessment of the nutritional value of various tea infusions in terms of the macro- and trace elements content. [online] Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0946672X19302159?via%3Dihub
  11. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2013. Efficacy of Acupuncture for Primary Insomnia: A Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial. [online] Available at: <https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2013/163850/
  12. Sleep Foundation. 2023. Sleep Statistics.

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